The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States edged up slightly in 2021, following a decade of declines, the Center for Migration Studies said in a new report.
The nation’s undocumented immigrant population increased from 10.2 million in 2020 to 10.3 million in 2021, the latest period covered by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey. Even with that slight bump, however, the percentage of unauthorized residents in the overall U.S. population decreased from 3.8% to 3.1% over a 10-year span, according to the study.
“From 2011 to 2021, the total U.S. undocumented population dropped by about 1 million, gradually declining from 11.3 million to 10.3 million,” the report says. “The decline occurred mostly because the undocumented population from Mexico fell by 1.9 million while the population from all other countries increased by about 900,000.”
The trend in Mexican numbers is especially noteworthy, CMS senior research analysist Robert Warren said during a Nov. 9 webinar presentation of the study. “The big news is the decline in the population from Mexico. It declined from 6.4 million to 4.4 million, or about a third, in just 10 years.”
The number of unauthorized Mexicans in the U.S. remained steady at about 6 million from 2012 to 2014, a period that included the launch of the DACA residency program for migrants brought into the nation as children. Immigrant legalization also was being considered during that period, Warren said.
“Conventional wisdom says if you’re considering a legalization program, people will come to the country to get in on it, and people will be less likely to leave. … During that time, there was generally a friendly attitude toward immigrants.”
But the mood chilled from 2015 to 2020, which included the anti-immigrant presidency of Donald Trump. “The legalization program failed. DACA came under fire. There were threats of mass deportation. The attitude toward immigrants was pretty hostile,” he said.
“The drop off wasn’t because more people were removed or died or became legal residents. It was because more people left.”
As a result, the estimated number of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. decreased to just under 4.5 million by 2020 and 2021, Warren explained. “We show in the paper that the drop off wasn’t because more people were removed or died or became legal residents. It was because more people left.”
Unauthorized residents from Ecuador, Korea, the Philippines, Peru and Poland also left in significant numbers during that time, according to the report. “The undocumented population from China increased from 285,000 in 2011 to 385,000 in 2015. After that, the population declined steadily, falling to 340,000 in 2021.”
Some groups of unauthorized residents grew noticeably during the decade, the study says. “The fastest growing undocumented populations by country in the last 10 years were from Guatemala, Honduras, India, El Salvador, Venezuela and Brazil. The combined undocumented populations from these six countries grew by 1.2 million.”
California saw the biggest reduction in undocumented residents, with 665,000 leaving the state during that decade: “The combined undocumented population in California, New York and Illinois fell by more than 1 million from 2021 to 2011.”
Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon also led in declines of unauthorized immigrant populations.
“They like to create fear that we’re being overrun, that we’re being invaded, et cetera, and the numbers just don’t bear that out.”
The trends uncovered by the study are in stark contrast to the fear tactics employed by politicians opposed to immigration, said Kevin Appleby, senior fellow for policy at the center.
Claims that the nation is being inundated by undocumented immigrants are unsupported by steady, long-term declines in the population of undocumented immigrants, he said. “Responses to what’s happening at the border are a bit overblown, certainly by immigration opponents in Congress. The fear tactics being used by immigration opponents are just that — fear tactics.”
Appleby acknowledged migrant apprehensions recently have increased at the southwestern border, but added there is not a one-to-one correlation between border detentions and the size of the undocumented population. “I’m not saying there’s not a reality on the border, that people aren’t coming at higher numbers right now. But what I am saying is that how they (immigration opponents) frame it as a threat, even an existential threat to the U.S., is misleading.”
The slight increase in unauthorized immigrant numbers from 2020 to 2021 is statistically “almost negligible,” he added. “But it will be interesting to see what happens in the next two years. They (immigration opponents) like to create fear that we’re being overrun, that we’re being invaded, et cetera, and the numbers just don’t bear that out.”
The nation urgently needs Republicans and Democrats in Congress to set aside those fears to craft immigration reforms that addresses current realities, he said. “Changes need to be made to our immigration system, to our asylum system. But this is not the way to go about it. It cannot be done in a vacuum and with one side holding a gun in their hand.”